Medical Myths: All About Cholesterol
Cholesterol is an essential component of animal cell membranes; as such, it is synthesized by all animal cells. Regardless of its bad name, cholesterol is essential for life.
Cholesterol comes from two sources. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need. The remainder of the cholesterol in your body comes from foods from animals. For example, meat, poultry and dairy products all contain dietary cholesterol.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015–2016, 12%Trusted Source of people aged 20 years or older in the United States had high cholesterol.
Myth: All cholesterol is bad for you
Cholesterol is a waxy substance. It’s not inherently “bad.” Your body needs it to build cells and make vitamins and other hormones. But too much cholesterol can pose a problem.
Cholesterol travels through the blood on proteins called lipoproteins. Two types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout the body:
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein), sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol raise your risk for heart disease and stroke.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or “good” cholesterol, carries cholesterol back to the liver. The liver then flushes it from the body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Myths: I have a skinny body, so I can’t have high cholesterol
Even if you have a healthy weight, your cholesterol can be abnormal. Other factors that impact your cholesterol are the foods you eat, your exercise habits, whether you smoke, and how much alcohol you drink
You can do many things to improve your cholesterol levels and keep them in a healthy range!
- Get tested at least every 5 years (unless told otherwise by your doctor).1,2 Learn more about cholesterol screenings.
- Make healthy food choices. Limit foods high in saturated fats. Choose foods naturally high in fiber and unsaturated fats. Learn more about healthy diets and nutrition at CDC’s nutrition, physical activity, and obesity website.
- Be active every day. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. Learn more about physical activity basics and tips.
- Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. Smoking damages your blood vessels, speeds up the hardening of the arteries, and greatly increases your risk for heart disease. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your risk for heart disease. Learn more about tobacco use and ways to quit at CDC’s smoking and tobacco use website.
- Talk with your health care provider about ways to manage your cholesterol; if any medicines are given to you to manage your cholesterol, take them as they are prescribed. Learn more about medicines to lower cholesterol.
- Know your family history. If your parents or other immediate family members have high cholesterol, you probably should be tested more often. You could have a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH).
Myths: I would have symptoms if I had high cholesterol
High cholesterol does not always result in symptoms. That’s why it’s a good idea to have regular blood tests to check for high cholesterol. The only ‘symptoms’ cholesterol can be linked to are late symptoms, such as heart and blood vessel damage and blockage caused by massive cholesterol accumulation. This can result in chest pain (angina), a heart attack, or even death.
Myths: If I eat lots of cholesterol, I will have high levels of it
The amount of cholesterol consumed does not always correspond to cholesterol levels. Eating sweets, or simple carbohydrates, even if one does not eat much cholesterol, can result in elevated cholesterol levels. And people who exercise are less likely to see elevations in cholesterol from eating cholesterol compared with sedentary people.
We recommend that you should not consume much red meat, cheese, and eggs because it contains saturated fat and cholesterol. Cholesterol is an animal product, so items that contain saturated fat will not only increase cholesterol but increase harm.
Myths: Everyone should aim for the same cholesterol targets
It is not true. Your target cholesterol level is dependent on whether you have a history of certain diseases — such as heart attack and stroke — and your chance of acquiring these difficulties, which is based on factors such as age and whether you have high blood pressure.
LDL cholesterol (the “bad”) should be less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) among those of us who have not experienced any cardiovascular problems. If you have a history of heart or vascular illness, such as a heart attack, stroke, or other arterial vascular diseases, or if you have diabetes, your LDL cholesterol aim should be less than 70 mg/dl, if not lower.
Myths:Only men need to worry about cholesterol levels
This is a common misconception, however, it is untrue. According to the CDCTrusted Source, the prevalence of elevated total cholesterol in U.S. adults was 11.4 percent in 2015–2018. When comparing men and women, elevated total cholesterol was found in 10.5 percent of males and 12.1 percent of women. After losing the protective effects of estrogen, women’s risk of heart disease increases, and they incur the same risk as men.
In fact, because women develop heart disease later in life and live longer, the female population has more heart attacks each year than the male population. And when women have a heart attack, their results are often worse, and they are at a considerably higher chance of dying from heart disease than from breast cancer.
Myths:There’s nothing I can do about my cholesterol level
Thankfully, this is not true. Aside from taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, you can also improve your cholesterol by keeping a healthy weight, eating the correct foods, exercising, not smoking, and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption.
Diet and exercise are always the first and most important steps to take. Statins are very effective at decreasing cholesterol levels while also being very safe. They’ve been around since 1987, with newer statins having better efficacy, safety, and fewer adverse effects.
And scientists are still coming up with new ideas – newer injectable PCSK-9 inhibitors have also been demonstrated to drastically drop cholesterol to levels that we haven’t seen before.
Myths:I take statins, so I can eat what I want
It is not true. You will acquire weight if you eat everything you want and consume too many calories. You can develop metabolic syndrome, which is a prediabetic state, if you acquire too much weight, especially around your belly button.
Statins are not weight-loss medicines. Their role is to reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, while yours is to respect your body, which includes what you consume.
Myth: I’m under 40, so I don’t need to have my cholesterol checked
While there is some debate about when to begin screening for increased cholesterol, many societies, including the AHA, recommend screening as early as age 20.
The longer your blood vessels are soaked in blood that contains too high a cholesterol level, the higher your risk of cardiovascular disease later in life. According to the guidelines, the first cholesterol test should be done around adolescence, and if you have a strong family history, it should be done sooner. Moreover, cholesterol should be evaluated at age 2 for people with homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia.
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